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There can have been no doubt in Eleanor's mind as to what was expected of her as a wife. In her day, women were supposed to be chaste both inside and outside marriage, virginity and celibacy being highly prized states. When it came to fornication, women were usually apportioned the blame, because they were the descendants of Eve, who had tempted Adam in the Garden of Eden, with such dire consequences. Women, the Church taught, were the weaker vessel, the gateway to the Devil, and therefore the source of all lechery. St. Bernard of Clairvaux wrote: "To live with a woman without danger is more difficult than raising the dead to life." Noblewomen, he felt, were the most dangerous so fall. Women were therefore kept firmly in their place in order to prevent them from luring men away from the paths of righteousness.

Promiscuity--and its often inevitable consequence, illicit pregnancy--brought great shame upon a woman and her family, and was punishable by fines, social ostracism, and even, in the case of aristocratic and royal women, execution. Unmarried women who indulged in fornication devalued themselves on the marriage market. In England, women who were sexually experienced were not permitted to accuse men of rape in the King's court. Female adultery was seen as a particularly serious offence, since it jeopardized the laws of inheritance.

Men, however, often indulged in casual sex and adultery with impunity. Because the virtue of high-born women was jealously guarded, many men sought sexual adventures with lower-class women. Prostitution was common and official brothels were licensed and subject to inspection in many areas. There was no effective contraception apart from withdrawal, and the Church frowned upon that anyway: this was why so many aristocratic and royal bastards were born during this period.

Alison Weir

Alison Weir
Alison Weir

Born: 1951

Profession: Writer

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